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Authors: Tony Hernandez

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BOOK: The Devil's Blessing
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He knew that’s what some of the men felt, after all, they always said it with both their words and eyes.

The sound of a metal pan being warmed against their makeshift grill was the only sound that morning, and Otto could have sworn that it was echoing off of mountains that didn’t exist. The smell of the fire was too much of a reminder of the night before, which in turn reminded him of the day before—something he didn’t want to think about.

Someone passed the kettle around. Even though Otto wasn’t any of the men’s favorite, someone even went as far as to bring him a cup as he sat and wondered about what they were to do.

Otto sat on a log that surrounded the makeshift fire pit they had made the night before. The wood was hard where he sat, but the air wasn’t as cold to him as days before. He could smell a bit of the burnt wood from last night’s festivities, but the laughter was now a distant dream in his mind.

Otto knew that he wasn’t looking for the relief of death. He was a coward, like some of the men had said, but at least he wasn’t a coward who lied to himself about it. He knew that bravery wasn’t his strong suit and every small bit of his being did not want to die.

Why are the other men so different?
he thought.
I’m the one made out to be the outcast for my feelings, yet not wanting to die is completely normal.
They’re
the ones who should be shunned!

As soon as Otto thought these things he knew that he was just lying to himself, trying to make himself feel better. It was all for naught. He envied the men and their courage. He wished he had just one ounce of their valor and their willingness to die for a cause that was greater than oneself. But at the end, Otto was just like any other dog. A dog who only cared about finding the next meal from his master, existing in fear of being whipped.

“You all right?” It was Josef Wernher. He smacked Otto’s shoulder as he sat down next to him, giving him a half-hug.

“Yes,” Otto said, lying.

“Good. Yesterday was—” Wernher was trying to find the words.

“Yeah,” Otto said, finishing his thought for him.

“Yeah,” Wernher said, with a smile, happy that someone understood what he was trying to say. And with that, he left. Otto wasn’t sure what was more terrifying: an angry Wernher, or one that was trying to be your friend.

As Otto looked around, the men busied themselves in a quiet manner, going about the day’s ins and outs. The only oddity was that there was no Ingersleben to be found.

In fact, no one had seen Ingersleben since last night.
Was he hiding, or had he ran off?
No, that wasn’t it. He had just been inside his tent, mulling about what had happened.

Even though Otto had not seen Ingersleben since Haas was shot, he did see some movement from his tent, mostly caused by Wernher coming in and out. He could hear him, as well. Ingersleben’s words tended to carry, since he was a man in charge and was used to having his words come out as commands. Even now, in the privacy of his own time, his words carried about the most mundane things, even though he wasn’t telling anyone what to do.

But still, the fact that he was away from everyone’s eyes was telling. What exactly it was saying, Otto wasn’t sure, but it wasn’t like the Unteroffizier to just up and be away from the men. Otto hated how their every move was practically covered by Ingersleben’s eyes. But now, when they were gone, he realized something strange that he never thought he’d feel. Otto felt a little abandoned. The man he felt was his jailer was turning out to be his guardian.

The men did not like him; everyone knew that. They tolerated Otto more than anything. Now that Ingersleben was gone, if only just out of sight, Otto felt as if he was alone in the world, naked surrounded by wolves. He had thought them friends, but now, without any oversight, the animals he wasn’t sure about could pounce on him anytime they wanted. He hated the feeling.

Eventually Ingersleben did come out of his tent to grab some air. He stretched out took a deep breath in as the warm air came out to the morning sky like smoke from a dying a fire.

He was still wearing his brown dress pants and boots, but he only had an undershirt on, his suspenders hung beside his thighs.

He seemed content with himself Otto noticed. Then, as quickly as he had smiled, his face turned sour. His eyes darted around, and he quickly went back inside. For a moment, Otto could’ve sworn that the sight of him was the reason that Ingersleben had turned away so quickly. But as soon as Ingersleben had gone back inside, Otto looked around and saw that all the men were looking towards their vanishing commander.

All their faces were asking the same question: what next?

Chapter Eight

“Can you be trusted?” Ingersleben asked.

“Me?” Ottot said. “Of course.”

“Hmm.” Ingersleben held both hands to his mouth as if he were praying, but Otto knew this man had zero faith, and the only God he thought existed was himself.

They were inside Ingersleben’s tent. The smoke from last night’s fire was not inside the tent, so it had a different smell. Not a clean one, just a different one, free from sulfur yet tinted with mold.

It was a bright day outside, but inside that tent it felt as if it could have been three o’clock in the morning; the flaps were closed and one solitary lamp lit the room. Every sound was heightened in the small space. The sound of the gravel they were moving on could be heard from all angles.

Gone was Ingersleben’s bed, and the tent was now a makeshift office. The lamp was hanging from the top of the tent like some odd chandelier. It provided the strange, long shadows that seemed to dance and change as every slight movement of outside air made the tent and the lamp sway.

Ingersleben sat behind his makeshift desk. To his right sat his own personal wolf, Grenadier Josef Wernher. He would have stood next to him had this been a real commander’s office, but there wasn’t enough headroom. Ingersleben and Wernher were trying to convey an image of authority and, to Otto, it was working.

“What did you think about last night?” Ingersleben said.

“Last night?”

“Yes,” Ingersleben said. “Haas’s killing. What did you think about that?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” Wernher said, adding another voice to the small inquisition.

“I mean, I guess—he was a traitor and deserving of death.”

“You guess or you know?” Ingersleben said, this time more forcefully. Although Otto was sitting some distance from the two men, with that one last sentence, it felt as if Ingersleben had moved his face right up to his, even though he hadn’t moved an inch.

Otto realized that he was being tested, and the next answer more than likely meant his life. He had to be careful, but more importantly, he had to be quick. These two were not trying to give him the time to think of the right or wrong answer. They wanted to know what his thoughts were, good or bad, and they were succeeding in getting them out of him.

“I think it was the right call,” Otto could hear himself say.

“‘The right call’? Whatever do you mean?”

Otto was stumped. He wasn’t even sure what he'd meant by it. All he knew was that the words were coming out, and he was going to stick to them. If he was dead, he was dead. There was no changing that now.

“What I mean, sir, is that it was a good call to have him shot, since the men were obviously not going to go along with the plan.”

“Are you insinuating that I would have agreed to Haas’s plan if the men had agreed with it?”

“Yes, sir. I do.” He just hoped his death would be quick, and that Wernher would shoot him in the head instead of the stomach. If his words had just cost him his life, he hoped his death would at least be as painless as possible.

“Hmm,” Ingerlsben said, raising his hands again to his mouth in his mock prayer. “Don’t tell the men we had this conversation, and keep your thoughts to yourself, understood?”

“Yes.” They sat there and stared at each other. Was the conversation really over? Was he still going to live?

“You’re excused,” Ingerslben said, and with that, Otto sprung up from his makeshift chair and banged his head on the lamp. This gave Wernher a small chuckle. Everyone knew how relieved and scared Otto was. What the two men were up to, and how this would involve Otto, had yet to be seen.


There was the question of what to do with the Soviet prisoners.

They had their official orders, of course, and that was to hold on to them for the time being. The fact that they, the soldiers, hadn’t been asked to move to another part of the battle was odd. It was as if they had been forgotten by top command, something of a small relief in world that gave little of it. But it was evident what they were. A ragtag group of throwaways, unworthy of death in battle. That was everyone’s story.

Wernher had been sent to the Stalag because of his open cruelty. Although they were now in Total War, even his actions were unbearable. No one knew exactly what he had done, but there were rumors. Rumors that he would play with the remains of the dead enemy.

Ingersleben was an unteroffizier, yes, but there was only one problem. He wasn’t any good. He was inept and unable to do his job. He had been promoted as the war started because he knew the right people and was a brother-in-law to the right man. But now that the war was in full swing, there was no place to put him. Surely not in a command that mattered, and he couldn’t be demoted. He would be an even worse foot soldier.

Lafenz was a child so young that even he was deemed unfit for battle.

And as for Otto—Otto was just a coward, unable to fight. Some called it shellshock, Otto knew the truth.

He and the other men where rejects. Had this been earlier in the war, most of them would have been shot for their transgressions. But now, Nazi Germany needed every able man, no matter how inept he was.

But they also knew there was a ticking clock on their little respite. The worse part was that they didn’t know when their time would be up. It was the worst sort of clock: one that was unseen.

For now, things did seem to be calm, considering the past days' events. They had killed Oberfeldwebel Peter Haas, but that already seemed like a distant memory. When something as dramatic as an execution of a top commander happens, everyone seems to be of the enemy, ready to pounce.

But as the seconds turned to minutes and the minutes to hours, Otto and everyone else started to feel a calm. Time does heal all wounds, even the wound of fear.

Otto was a little worried about how his meeting with Ingersleben and Wernher must have looked, but soon even that worry was abated as everyone noticed that the entire camp was getting the one-on-one treatment. At first, Otto thought he was being singled out, but soon the men realized that they were all being called in, slowly and individually. This gave Otto a cool sensation of relief down his spine. It was the first time he hadn’t minded the sensation of cold in a long time.


What do eyes stare at when they look at nothing?

There were always eyes, always. No matter how long the days were, no matter how much nothing moved or changed, no matter how much everything seemed dead, there were always eyes.

The eyes of Otto’s men and the prisoners. They were always full of life, always doing something different than they had been doing just a few moments before.

The first few weeks, he'd thought he was inside some ruin, both sets of men like Grecian statutes that didn’t move from day to day. Only, instead of holding a discus in the nude, these statues were holding cigarettes, crouched down close to the ground, trying to find some warmth that wasn’t there.

Slowly, however, Otto discovered that there was life in the camp. That there was movement.

There was a business and bustle that could rival any weekend marketplace. And that was the eyes.

The eyes of the men were as distinct as the men themselves. Some darted in anxiety; others were low in depression. Though the bodies didn’t move, that didn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of action going on; it was just between the ears. There was a raging movement and noise that was encapsulating the camp, confined within each man’s thoughts.

What was the question that was spinning inside Otto’s mind? That question was where, exactly, he was.

They were, after all, fighting over land, and if different peoples were fighting over different lands, then that meant that everyone had a different claim on said lands. So to his German comrades, they were in reclaimed Prussia. To the advancing Soviets, they were probably in some city that would be named after a Bolshevik revolutionary. And yet still, to the locals, many of them with Polish backgrounds, they were probably somewhere else, somewhere called something else that he wasn’t even sure of. It was, at that moment, that Otto realized that, in a time of war, when different factions were contesting over disputed lands—that was the only time that a man could say he didn’t know where he truly was. Because the truth under his feet wasn’t the same truth as the ones who were coming, marching to take it out from under him.

Otto shot out of his daze, rubbing his eyes. He thought he felt a tear. He looked up towards the prison yard and saw the Russian prisoners taking in a collective gasp.

It was their eyes. All of them. There were several huddled Russian masses, all at a distance from each other. What they lacked in symmetry they all shared with their focus.

Him. They were all staring at him.

Some began to look away nervously, while a few others held their stares.

While Otto’s eyes were in the distance, trying to make heads and tails of their shared predicament, his eyes must’ve been on fire. Everyone inside that prison could hear that his eyes were screaming. He just didn’t know what exactly they had heard.

Chapter Nine

The next morning the men awoke to something that they had hoped had secretly left them.

Snow.

The flakes were far and few, but they continued, falling at a near constant rate. When they snowfall did let up, the gray sky above reminded them that there would be no relenting. It was as if God Himself had heard the plan as well and decided that He needed to add a little push.

BOOK: The Devil's Blessing
9.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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